In 2017, Australian multimillionaire and luxury home developer Tim Gurner went viral for some justly mocked comments about his fellow millennials and their penchant for avocado toast. “When I was trying to buy my first home,” remarked Gurner. “I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each.” Absurd and patronizing as the statement so obviously was, it nevertheless reflected a view held by many of society’s most powerful people: that the bleak economic outlook facing many young people today owes itself less to structural impediments than it does to poor personal choices.
Earlier this week, Gurner went viral again — this time for his comments during an onstage appearance at the Australian Financial Review’s Property Summit:
I think the problem that we’ve had is that people have decided they really didn’t want to work so much anymore through COVID, and that has had a massive issue on productivity. . . . They have been paid a lot to do not too much, and we need to see that change. We need to see unemployment rise. Unemployment needs to jump 40-50 percent, in my view. We need to see pain in the economy. We need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way around. There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around. So it’s a dynamic that has to change. We’ve got to kill that attitude, and that has to come through hurt in the economy.
As with Gurner’s thoughts on millennials and avocado toast, the clip quickly excited a fierce backlash and it’s easy to see why. An exorbitantly wealthy CEO (the Australian Financial Review estimates that his net worth is around $584 million) expounding on the need for people to lose their jobs en masse is repugnant enough. But the breezy and businesslike manner in which Gurner advocates “pain” and “hurt” is what makes his remarks particularly striking. There are passive and technocratic ways of making the same argument. That he opted instead to be so explicit in his contempt for the lower orders, if nothing else, has the virtue of ideological sincerity.
In substance, however, his attitude should not be mistaken as an especially rare or novel one. Stripped of their malicious overtones, Gurner’s comments are perfectly in line with the mainstream economic orthodoxy of modern neoliberal societies — and the policies currently being pursued by many central banks. In this view, low unemployment and decent wages are not a success to be celebrated but a crisis to be managed through deliberately engineered social pain.
Former Treasury Secretary and Barack Obama administration advisor Larry Summers said as much earlier this year while speaking to Bloomberg, apparently oblivious to the optics of calling for higher unemployment with a luxurious tropical beach looming in the background. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have both made similar remarks, though the former took care to call the pain wrought by interest rate hikes “unfortunate.”
Regardless of whether such a qualifier is added, the implication remains the same. And however politicians may try to obscure it with warm and fuzzy phrases like “social mobility” and “equality of opportunity,” the reality is that our reigning economic model depends on keeping large numbers of workers in a state of permanent precarity. Capitalists often defend the market by invoking the language of freedom and choice, but the system they believe in is coercive and hierarchical by design.
Writing in the 1940s, Polish economist Michal Kalecki correctly identified both the inherently political nature of employment policy and the visceral tendency of capitalists to maintain and consolidate a subordinate relationship between themselves and workers. Full employment, Kalecki wrote:
would cause social and political changes which would give a new impetus to the opposition of the business leaders. The “sack” would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. . . . “Discipline in the factories” and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the “normal” capitalist system.
Tim Gurner might have stated his view with more ideological candor than most. But all he really did was say the quiet part out loud.